Jospin Seeks French Vote as Hands - On President
PARIS (Reuters) - Prime Minister Lionel Jospin vowed on Thursday to wipe out mass unemployment if elected president of France and in a clear bid to widen his appeal said he was not running for the job on an only-for-Socialists program.
In his first TV interview since he declared his candidature this week, Jospin said he would not make promises and then turn his back on them in office -- an indirect jab at arch-rival Jacques Chirac, the current conservative president.
Jospin, known as a steady hand who has diligently applied himself to the task of government, also endeavoured to rise above party politics and enhance his profile as a statesman.
``I am from the Socialist school, but the project that I have proposed to the country is not a Socialist project,'' he said.
The 64-year-old former university professor who has shared power for five years with Chirac in a prickly division of labor, announced his candidature on Wednesday, 10 days after Chirac said he would bid for a second term.
He defended his record as prime minister in charge of a left-wing coalition since mid-1997, a term marked by strong economic growth as well as the introduction of a 35-hour work week and subsidized youth jobs to reduce unemployment.
He promised in his interview on France 2 state television to keep jobs at the top of his agenda as president and to reform the state-sponsored retirement benefits system to cope with the funding strains of an aging population.
He said he would not allow U.S.-style private pension funds to set up in France but took a more open tack on other sensitive economic issues in a country with a strong attachment to public services, saying full-scale privatization of power company EdF was not on the cards, but partial private investment was an option.
Most recent opinion polls show Jospin and Chirac virtually neck-and-neck ahead of the election, to be staged on April 21 with a May 5 runoff between the top two candidates.
CHANGE OF STYLE
Jospin said it was time for clear break with the role and style of the man he is challenging and that it was time for a president ``who does not stay in the back seat.''
Chirac, 69, was elected president in 1995 at the same time as his allies on the center-right took power.
He and the government had promised to fight social strife and divisions between rich and poor but he changed tack within months to impose big public spending cuts and tax hikes.
Chirac dissolved parliament in 1997 in an attempt to cement his shaken allies' majority but the gamble backfired badly and the left took power, opening five years of ``co-habitation'' between the Gaullist Chirac and Socialist prime minister.
Jospin shied away from any frontal attack on his rival but seized on Chirac's record as president to cultivate his own image as a man who means what he says and delivers on his pledges.
``If you have your say on a whole series of things and...then turn your back on your policies, as was the case in 1995, you end up demoralizing public opinion,'' Jospin said.
Jospin said his Socialist-led coalition government had created 1.8 million jobs since taking power. As president, full employment would be his long-term goal as would the creation of a further 900,000 jobs.
The five broad themes of his platform are: full employment, law and order, incomes and pensions reform, education and training and a drive to give Europe a stronger voice in the world.
Keen to boost the left's law and order credentials, Jospin said a rising sense of insecurity in France was something all parties had to address and that a speech by Chirac on the issue went no further than he himself had done.
Chirac, who beat off a presidential challenge from Jospin in 1995, has been dogged by several sleaze scandals in the past few years, while Jospin has been cultivating his image as the Mr. Clean of French politics.
Chirac has invoked presidential immunity to refuse to be questioned by judicial investigator. Jospin said this was a matter for the justice system to sort out but that he would propose a review of the legal status of president if elected.
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